29 October 2002

The BIG meeting is coming soon

The biggest annual event in my field is undoubtedly the Society for Neuroscience meeting, which I expect will crack 30,000 people this year. It starts this weekend in Orlando, Florida.

I'll be leaving for it on Thursday. I'm leaving a few days before the meeting because this meeting is so big, it spawns little mini-meeting offspring. More officially, they're called "satellite meetings." The logic is, "Look, we're all going to the Neuroscience meeting anyway, so rather than trying to find another time that everyone can make it, let's just meet a couple of days before / after Neuroscience."

In particular, I'll be attending a meeting held by the J.B. Johnston Club and attending the Executive Committee meeting of the International Society for Neuroethology.

I'll be taking my laptop with me, so I hope to have updates from the meeting. A lot depends on just how well equipped my hotel room is, and maybe how quickly I can figure out my new dial-up settings that SBC Global gave me.

27 October 2002

Decisions, decisions...

Buying a microscope is like buying a car.

For one thing, the price range is about the same. I’m not kidding; the cheapest car these days is running just under U.S.$10,000. That's the budget I have to work with to buy one stereo microscope.

And, like buying a car, the more you look, the more difficult the decision gets. You are presented with a huge range of options, and a fairly substantial range in price. Yet they all do basically the same thing.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time the last couple of days looking at three quotes for microscopes: from Nikon, Olympus and Zeiss. I’m not having fun deciding between them.

25 October 2002

Stupid of the Week!

Last week on my campus saw many events held as part of HESTEC. The idea of the week was to encourage Hispanic students to enter careers in science and engineering.

One such event was a Congressional roundtable, featuring heavy hitters such as a Nobel laureate, director of the NSF, and various executives of high-tech companies.

And what do we hear about the value of science and technology?

"Science and technology in the country let us survive WWI, and the Cold War."

So David Swain, senior Vice President of Boeing, is reported to have said.


"Gee, what do we researchers do when there isn't a war on?" I think to myself.

And how nice to know science won the Cold War. And here I was all this time thinking the U.S.S.R collapsed because of poor economic policies operating under governments that included arguably the most brutal dictatorship in history. But no, it was our sleek transistor radios. Or something.

Why science gets the nod for WWI, but isn't credited with helping to end World War II is a bit of a puzzle. I would have thought the development of the atomic bomb surely represented a major technical achievment.

Now, I'm willing to entertain the notion that Swain was quoted out of context, in which case the "Stupid of the Week" goes to the writer of the article, not David Swain.

But in either case, it's exasperating to hear a quote like this about science education. It is about the furthest thing on the minds of most scientists I know. Some are drawn by the beauty of the natural world, some by the challenge of intellectual puzzles, some by the desire to improve the lot of others. But "Science wins wars" -- while undoubtedly true in some ways -- is about the last thing I'd use as a selling point for my field. It seems so far off the mark.

24 October 2002


Pages read of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 1,343. That, my friends, is the last text page. After that, references and an index, and I don't feel any great need to read those.

I'm done. Earlier than I expected. Maybe I'll post a small review later.

Time to clear that tome off my desk, and get back to writing lectures for my new courses.

17 October 2002

Hey! A picture!

If this works, I'll be livening this journal with a few more visuals from here on in.

Ascidian tadpole larva

If I've done this right, above this text is a picture of a little baby ascidian tadpole larva. It's not exactly publication quality, but I reckon it's pretty good... considering that I just held up my video camera to the eyepiece of a microscope.

The head is on the left, and you can see the tail on the right. It's about 1 mm long. The clear line running down the middle of the tail is a notochord. In us, the notochord becomes a spinal cord. A notochord lets us know that this little guy is actually a fairly close relative to humans within the animal kingdom.

If you think it's not much to look at... you're right. And that's the whole point. This little guy has about 1,000 cells or so. A thousand is a manageable number for biologists to work with (compared to however many billions in a mouse or cat).

Despite being small, this critter has a big task. In very short order, it has to pick a spot to settle. There, it undergoes metamorphosis, and spends the rest of its life in that spot. Imagine trying to pick the home where you'll spend the rest of your life at the age of 2, say, and you'll start to get an appreciation for what this guy is up against.


I have my first underlings!

Or, if you insist, "Undergraduate research scholars."

Back in September, I had applied for a university program designed to give undergraduates a bit of research experience. I found out today that I got it, and will have a couple of first year undergraduate sudents working with me. These two will be helping me out in the lab, analyzing older videotape and who knows what else. They get a bit of $$$, and so do I. Looking forward to working with them.

15 October 2002

Everyone's favourite little blue pill

Everyone has something to say about Viagra. But easy jokes aside, this article suggests Viagra might finally end the centuries-old demand for all manner of animal parts that were supposedly aphrodisiacs and/or cures for impotence.

14 October 2002

I have data! Nyah-nyah-nya-NYAH-nyah!

I'm a-doin' the happy dance.

The little experiment I mentioned in my last entry was a rousing success. There's a result worth investigating more, which is just the sort of thing a dude wants as preliminary data for grant applications.

I wish I could show the picture of the results, but I'm going to hold on t it until things are a little further along.

11 October 2002

Experiment 1

I'm excited. After over a year in my current job, spending a lot of time teaching and waiting for equipment, I am running my first little experiment, on ascidian tadpole settlement. Can't say too much about it, but whatever I find could become some early data that I can then use in grant applications.


Although I spend a lot of time talking about my research, in most universities, the bulk of the research is done by graduate students. The Biology Department here at UTPA has a Masters program, but no doctoral program. We are taking steps towards that goal, though. The department was recently asked to submit a pre-proposal for a new doctoral program.

Unfortunately, there is a major disagreement in emphasis desired by some of the interested parties. Within the Biology Department, the general feeling seems to be that we have a strong case for some sort of Subtropical program, because we are located in one of only two subtropical locations in the U.S. (south Texas and Florida). Our Vice-President of Academic Affairs, however, tells us the University President is strongly interested in a Biomedical doctoral program -- a crowded field, with competition lured in by the scent of money.

I reckon it's a case of the Cool Hand Luke problem: "What we got here is a failure to communicate." Today, we asked to have a meeting with our VP of Academic Affairs. We'll see how it goes.

I may have to wear a shirt with buttons to that meeting. 'Cause I really want this place to move to a Ph.D. program.

08 October 2002

Great Moments in Science: The Funniest Joke in the World

It brings to mind a classic sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (If you've never seen it on television, let’s just say that the transcribed link isn't anywhere near as funny.) But even humour isn't immune to scientific inquiry, so if you want a joke that’s been scientifically tested to stand above the rest, you might want to read this article.

The article notes that Canadians don’t get it.

And hey, the Nobel Prizes for this year are being announced. This year’s winners for Physiology and Medicine went to researchers who started intensive work on a millimetre long worm, C. elegans, which has been used for all sorts of groundbreaking research, particularly in development of tissue and genetics. The winners got the Nobel for Medicine and Physiology, because there is no Nobel prize for Biology. :(

(Aside: There's no Nobel prize for Mathematics, either. But at least the mathematicians have an interesting myth concerning the prize’s founder to explain why they don't have one.)

07 October 2002

Back to the beach

I'll be spending the next couple of days out at South Padre Island at the University's Coastal Studies Lab. I'll be testing some rough and ready experiments so that, if the Whitehall Foundation lets me apply for a grant, I'll have some preliminary data to include in it.

But, you might ask, "Isn't the entire point of writing grants so that you can get money to do experiments? Why are you having to do experiments before you send in the application for grants?"

The reason for needing to do experiments in advance is that funding agencies want a pretty good indication that the research they fund will be successful. Given competition for funding is very tight these days, it's a funder's market, so a funding agency can set very high demands for their applications. So... you have to show some indication that you can do the work, and the best way to do that is to include some real examples.

The complaint that "You have to have the work done before you can get funding for it!" is a common one among researchers, but I've seen very few practical solutions for it.

05 October 2002

Mo' money

I finally received word yesterday that I will be getting another quarter of my start-up money from the Dean's office. I'll be using it to buy a microscope. Currently, the lack of a microscope is largely holding any research I might do to a standstill.

(Recap: When I started here, the Vice President of Academic Affairs promised money to start my lab. But his office only provided 5/8 of that money, and said the Dean of Science & Engineering would provide the other 3/8. The Vice President of Academic Affairs didn't tell the Dean this. Not surprisingly, the Dean had no money in the budget for it until the start of the new fiscal year, about a month ago.)

03 October 2002


A couple of seeds that I planted some months ago have begun, while not to bear fruit, at least poke a few green shoots into the air.

Received a phone call concerning a proposal for a symposium I had submitted to the Animal Behavior Society. My initial idea was to highlight some recent development in neurobiology and suggest how they might impact on people studying behaviour (since "making behaviour" is the job of the nervous system, after all!). Qualified success. They like the idea, but are suggesting I try to refine it a little more into something a little less wide ranging.


Also got a piece of equipment today that I submitted the purchase order for back in June! Even with that, I'm still waiting on a couple of more "big ticket items" that I kind of need to make a working lab.


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 1069! I'm finally into Chapter 10, and have moved well past the 75% mark.

02 October 2002

On your mark...

Just received a confirmation letter from the Whitehall Foundation. They recieved my "letter of intent" in time for their current grant deadline. I'll find out if I have to write a full proposal on 16 December 2002. If I do, well... so much for Christmas "break"!

I'm hoping that I'll have The Structure of EVolutionary Theory finished by then. Pages read: 986!

01 October 2002


Ah, fall. It's here now, and temperatures in southern Texas have become "pleasant," rather than "oppressive."

Nothing comes free, though. Cooler temperatures, higher winds. Possibly a lot higher. Living on the Gulf Coast means that my plans to make trips to the Coastal Studies Lab are frequently tempered by whether a hurricane or tropical storm is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico or south Atlantic, and whether it decides to hit Mexico, Florida, Louisiana, or Texas. If all goes well, the current storm -- Lili -- won't keep me from my next trip.

I'm also hoping that such storms won't mess up my currently planned trip to this year's Society for Neuroscience meeting, to be held next month in Orlando, Florida. It happened before, when the meeting was held in Miami in 1999. I didn't go that year, but it was apparently not pretty.


I realized earlier this week that some equipment I ordered back in June hadn't arrived yet. A query to purchasing led to some phone calls, and the company is apparently shipping it now. I hope to see it by the end of the week.

And the morale of the story is: Pay attention.


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 958.